I was emotionally lost, lonely, and living a life of despair. I was overwhelmed on a daily basis with depression and anxiety. I couldn’t see a path forward out of how I felt and routinely contemplated suicide as a way out, as a way to get some measure of relief. During this time I was on a cocktail of antidepressants, anti-anxiety, and ADD meds. I took the first picture on the day I wandered into the Petal, Mississippi YMCA. It was May 14th, 2010.
As I crossed the threshold to enter the “Y” I was terrified. I was scared of what people would think of me. I was scared that I didn’t know what to do, and rightly so, as I honestly didn’t have a clue what I was doing. When I walked into the free weight area there were all these big guys. They were big and strong and looked confident. I didn’t fit in at all.
These strong men intimidated me, but I decided to exercise anyway. I wanted to at least try, and I wanted to be strong. I wanted to feel like I had control over something, even if it was just my ability to try. I wandered from machine to machine and I gave it my best effort. I quickly realized I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, but I still attempted it, which quite frankly wasn’t a lot.
As I sat there contemplating what I had done I started researching “bodybuilding”; my search led me to bodybuilding.com. I started reading everything I could and it was a lot to take in. I just wanted something simple to start with, something that would be hard for me to screw up. I found the “Starting Strength” template and it seemed to fit the bill. I started working that template as best I could a day or two later.
As I look back on that first week I’m sure I must have been quite the sight almost falling over in the squat rack. It was rough and I lacked even the basic coordination it takes to perform a squat with an empty bar.
I stuck with it and my movement and coordination started improving. Over the next couple of months, I started to add more muscle and get stronger. My posture started to improve and my emotional state seemed to improve daily and weekly. My mind seemed to be responding to training as much as my body was. This encouraged me to keep at it and within 6 months, or so, I was off the meds and continued pushing toward this undefined goal I had lurking in my mind.
I didn’t know what this goal was, but I did know that weightlifting helped fix something inside me, and pushing toward that mysterious goal would help me continue to improve.
This was my path for the next 7-8 years. Over this time, I continued to read about programming, technique, and pretty anything else related to the iron. I attended seminars and learned from masters and champions. At some point, during this period, I realized that I wanted to devote my life to the iron. I earned my certification as a trainer and started coaching people. I started with friends and family and eventually would pick up more people over time. In the summer of 2012, I started coaching full time. I have been a professional in the fitness industry ever since.
The second photo was taken in the winter of 2018. I was 8 years deep in my fitness journey. I had been blessed with the opportunity to work with so many wonderful clients and athletes and had established myself as a respected weightlifting coach within my community. It was around this time that I expanded my certifications to include USA Weightlifting level 1 certification and I opened my own private coaching facility, FitLab Tupelo.
By all measures, my life was going wonderfully, and I, for sure, was immeasurably happier than I was at the start of this journey. That said, I still wasn’t happy. There was something deep inside that yet wasn’t fulfilled. I felt this unrecognized self-loathing. I hated myself for staying in an unhealthy marriage. I stayed in for way longer than I should have. You see, this relationship made me feel like I was less. I felt like I was less than someone else would want. I felt like I was less than what I was capable of and less than I deserved. I was helping so many people within my community cope with deep issues, build self esteem, and improve their lives yet I felt like a failure.
I felt like a hypocrite because I refused to look myself in the eyes and recognize my problems. I was stressed, and I took it out on myself. I lived off beer and pizza that winter and felt terrible because of it. I was neither respecting my body or my mind.
In February of 2019 I came to the sad conclusion that I had to ask myself a question. That question was who did I love more? Was it her or was it me? This was one of the hardest days of my life as I finally admitted to myself that the answer had to be me. I realized that I had allowed myself to be treated so poorly for so long because it was all I had ever known. From childhood I had felt ugly, unlove, and unwanted. I had stayed in this relationship because I believed that was just how we experienced life. That feeling that way was normal.
I had a breakthrough! I realized that this way of thinking was fundamentally wrong. I realized that my childhood experiences had formed this way of thinking. What I recognized as normal was absolutely not normal and my relationship was fundamentally unhealthy at the foundation. I decided to take 100% full responsibility for my own happiness and started the process of divorcing my wife of 18 years. (That didn’t happen like clockwork… We got divorced, tried healing and getting back together, and finally called it quits. Not long after I moved across the country to pursue new opportunities and adventures.)
Around the time of that massive personal breakthrough my uncle Owen had a massive heart attack. In my eyes Owen had always been a strong man. He was a man that was consistent and resolute, a man you could count on. When he got sick I realized that if he, a monolith of a man in my eyes, could be taken down by poor health, well then I could too.
I started to think about what life would be like for my son if I died too soon to finish our adventures. I started to think of all the people that I would never get a chance to show the truths buried in the iron, the truths that helped to heal me. Reflecting on this I came to the conclusion that it was time to make a change. I decided that it was time to start nurturing myself. I decided to treat myself the way I would treat a child I loved. I would act in my best interest and with love and kindness for myself. I would direct my internal talk towards acceptance, love, and kindness.
I decided that with continuing to change my mind it was time to change my body. I wanted to be healthy! I took everything out of my diet that wasn’t vegetable, healthy meat, fruit, or healthy fat. Nutrition at this time was all about vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, clean foods, and providing my body with the best I could so that I could help to heal years of the standard American diet, damage, and neglect. I continued to weight train but my training was about so much more than it had been in the past. It was no longer about moving the most weight possible no matter what. Training was about health and healing. What a remarkable change of pace! I started including more calisthenics and cardiovascular work. I started playing with gymnastics. I rode my bicycle to and from work and started adventuring again! I started rock climbing, something from my youth that I absolutely loved, and doing things outdoors! I even started running with one of my good friends. (I sure never saw that one coming.) Fitness for me was no longer about being the strongest or setting records. Now I was lifting and exercising as a way to nurture myself and love myself.
These mental and dietary changes ended up resulting in a weight loss of about 35 pounds and an improvement across all measurable blood work. I ended up walking around with body fat in the 8-9% range with very little effort outside of making sure I’m feeding my body with the spirit of healing and nurturing. I was still eating hyper clean and I was healthy! This is when I took the third photo. It was July 2019.
As of July 2019 I was 3,327 days deep into this journey. This progress up to that point, hard won and fought for was a long time in the making. The journey was anything but easy and it was certainly filled with some of the heaviest heartache imaginable, personal battles I would never tell anyone about.
The take away here is this. I would never have changed things for the better had I not doggedly put one foot in front of the other and fought my way forward. You see, even in those times that the path before us may not be clear, we must still push forward for if we don’t, we risk being pulled down into the darkness of our own past and traumas.
I kept pushing towards that mysterious undefined goal. As I think about it now, I realize that goal was simply my intuition. It was my intuition towards what I needed.
The hardest part of all this was finally accepting and loving myself. For me anyway, this turned out to be the most important thing of all. As a grown man who had never felt loved or wanted by his mother, father, or even spouse it was life altering to finally find the love I needed all along. That was my love for myself.
It was by helping me discover this love that the iron saved my life. That’s why I coach.
I wrote the first draft of this in July 2019. Today is July 8, 2020, and things have only improved for the better, but that’s a story for another day.
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